Thursday, July 28, 2011

Make a Mess: An Interview with Shaina Taub

With the temperature climbing last week, I feel sorry for anyone who wasn't chillin' at Ars Nova last week Thursday, listening to the breezy, cool music of Shaina Taub. I had heard Shaina perform Eli Bolin and Sam Forman's "I Like Girls," but didn't know that Shaina wrote her own music, has an EP coming out soon, and wrote mythic musical The Daughters until she invited me out for her concert. That was quickly remedied, however, the minute her opening song "Make a Mess" started up (download it on her website for free!) and I was treated to an exciting night of performances from Shaina herself, Jo Lambert, Kate Ferber, Ali Stroker, Grace McLean, Tom Hennes, and Ato Blankson-Wood.

Shaina's music is playful, smoky, and bold and gives voice to a host of female characters that haven't really had their spotlight in musical theatre quite yet. She'll be playing a concert at Rockwood Music Hall on 8/29 to celebrate the release of her EP (and it's good, trust me), and she was kind enough to answer some post-Ars Nova concert questions (and provide some videos from said concert):

What was the process like of picking the songs for your EP? How does writing standalone songs compare with the process of writing songs for a musical theatre work?

Shaina Taub: The EP project initially began as a three song demo, and grew from there into a six-song fully realized recording. Overall, I wanted to give the listener a wide range of colors, trying to create an eclectic, yet cohesive collection of songs. Also, I wanted to make really expansive tracks, with lots of voices and instruments, because what’s exciting to me about recording is creating versions of your songs that are much different than the live experience. Nearly fifty vocalists and musicians are represented on the EP, and I hope that it gives it the communal, celebratory vibe I’m hoping for.

Writing ‘stand-alone songs’ and writing songs specifically for a character in a story are similar processes that have taught me a great deal about each other. I am constantly striving to bring the poetic/abstract element of a stand-alone song into a theater song, and the specific, storytelling quality of a theater song in my non-theater songwriting. When writing a stand-alone song, no one’s going to second guess the deeper meaning of a lyric – cool wordplay can exist for cool wordplay’s sake, which I love. With theater songs, I love the lesson in form – you can’t have any excess fat, no superfluous breakdown just cause it sounds funky. The economy of form in writing for theater is something I’ve tried to carry over into stand-alone songs. Just because it feels good to sing, doesn’t mean the song needs it sung.

Me: Something else you seem to play with a lot is mythology, as your show The Daughters has roots in Greek myths and some of your other songs have strong narratives to them. What is it about these stories that speak most to you? And how do you see the relationship working between storytelling/narrative and your songwriting process?

Shaina: I love myths because they let me fill up an old container with my own perspective. Instead of being directly autobiographical, I can pour my thoughts and feelings into an archetypal persona and hope it resonates a little more widely than my very specific lens of a twentysomething girl in New York. I also love how myth can let you get a little political thematically without making a political statement on any one time and place. With the degree of separation on a personal and social scale, I think the ability to achieve some kind of timelessness is greater.

I try to infuse some semblance of a story in every one of my songs, however masked. Everyone loves a story, and if you can draw them in with not only a catchy tune and snap-able beat, but something in the lyrics that makes them want to know what happens next, all the better.

Me: Being a performer yourself (and having such a great, unique voice!), how does your own vocal style play a part in your songwriting process, especially in your theatrical work?

Shaina: I used to write songs in an impractical way – using the height of my range in every song, and I ended up with songs that were all the same decibel level – no fun to listen to as a set, and impossible to sustain vocally. In the last year or so, I’ve been working on using high notes and vocal ‘tricks' sparingly, so they have more impact. I’ve become obsessed with playful phrasing and using the sound of the words themselves to inform melodic choices – singers like Adele and Jill Scott are huge inspirations for this. I’ve also tried to be nicer to myself, and write songs that are easier to sing any day of the week.

In theater work, it’s freeing to not be chained to the limitations and specificities of my own voice. Writing for men is the next frontier for me. I am seriously challenged in my understanding of the male voice – something about the octaves and falsetto, and what notes basses and tenors can actually hit – it has always baffled me. The main reason my songs are female-driven are because boy’s voices confuse me. I’m excited to change that though, and soon!

Me: Tell us a little about Political Subversities.

Political Subversities is a wildly funny, dark musical sketch comedy show I write for and perform in every Saturday night at the People’s Improv Theater. The company is comprised of ten writer/performers who are among the most unique and hilarious artists I know in the city. We have brand new material weekly, and cover politics, culture and everything in between, always striving to find the humorous, the stupid and the downright absurd in current events. Imagine a Venn Diagram of The Daily Show, Book of Mormon, and SNL, and Polisub is somewhere in the middle.

I’ve been in the group for a year and half, and it’s been a great exercise in writing a lot and quickly. In the show right now, I have a hip hop song about Michele Bachmann, a geniuine pop ballad from the perspective of Osama bin Laden’s widow, and a gospel finale about America being my guilty pleasure. A music video of my song, Political Wife, went viral last fall:

Check us out at:

Me: You mentioned at your Ars Nova concert that you recently got on Twitter and like it. What role do you see technology and social media playing in getting your music out there?

Shaina: I resisted Twitter for so long, and now I’m totally addicted. To me, it’s by far the most superior of the various social media outlets – I get news, music, and a daily stream of one-liners from comedians I love. Not to sound too hi-falutin’, but Twitter’s really it’s own art form – you don’t want to be overly self-promoting, but no one cares about every little detail of your day either. I attempt to strike a balance between humor, shameless self-plugs, and sharing other people’s music and videos I love.

I think technology and social media is an incredibly empowering tool for independent musicians. So many bands have achieved huge success just by building their own fan base online. If you make your music easily available on the internet, people respond to that and it has the potential to catch on like wildfire.

Follow me! @shainataub

Me: Any plugs or new projects you want to mention?

Shaina: My EP, What Otters Do, comes out on August 29th! You’ll be able to download it totally for free online, and come to the totally free release concert at Rockwood Music Hall Stage 2 on August 29th at 8:30 PM!

In the meantime, visit my website for tons of videos, and also a free download of the single – ‘Make A Mess’.

I’ve also recently been commissioned to write the score for a new musical for the Tony-winning Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I’m currently working with them to find a book writer, so expect more news on that soon!

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